Undisputedly, a class area of law…
Litigation, or dispute resolution as it’s also known, involves assistance with disputes and claims which may arise in the course of any commercial transaction or deal.
Such matters could arise between different companies, or between companies and individuals.
Issues which fall under litigation can range from contractual matters, banking transactions and fraud, to mergers and acquisitions, regulatory mechanisms or competition, corporate management and restructuring problems.
Why is litigation important? What does it involve?
Often when people think of litigation, they think of lawyers taking claims to court or defending claims brought against their clients. However, due to the cost and damage to business relationships that occur during court battles, dispute resolution is often used.
Most top law firms have specialist litigation and dispute resolution departments, whilst smaller or specialist firms concentrate all their resources on litigation.
Often, work as a trainee will begin by preparing documentation or conducting research on relevant laws and case histories or drafting preliminary motions before the court.
Eventually though, you will move on to more complex activities as you gain experience.
Litigators usually work closely with colleagues from other departments (e.g. banking and finance, corporate, commercial and real estate) and a whole host of other support staff.
Litigation is subject to frequent changes and developments over a period of time.
Here in the UK, there are growing trends of American style class action suits, protests against the escalating costs of litigation, third-party funding and a noticeable growth in the number of solicitor advocates.
What makes a good litigator?
A litigator requires good communication and negotiation skills. However, it’s not so much about arguing cases but making a cogent and reasoned case in favour of your client’s interests.
You’ll need to have a strong academic background and be flexible and creative when it comes to tackling new challenges.
In order to be a good litigator, you will need a keen sense of commercial awareness, good command over legal and technical principles and the ability to present facts, law and strategies in a reasoned and persuasive manner.
A Day in the Life of Thomas Armstrong, Associate at DWF
What’s the first thing you do when you get into the office?
Eat breakfast and discuss how busy the train was!
Joking aside, the first thing I do is check my emails alongside the task list I have written at the end of the previous day. If anything urgent has come in overnight which needs attention immediately, this gets bumped up the list and is dealt with first thing. If not, I start work as planned—usually with the least appealing job to get it out the way.
I am much more productive early in the morning, so tend to get into the office between 7.30am and 8.00am—if I can get a couple of chargeable hours on the clock before the phone starts to ring, that sets me up for the unexpected queries which always come in during the day, and usually enables me to leave at a sensible time.
How do you handle and prioritise your workload?
I use various different mechanisms. First is my diary—this has all court deadlines in it, for example, witness statements, the expiry of notices or break dates. I have a paper list of the same, so I can see at a glance what is ahead (but also because computers are not failsafe!) My inbox is broken down into folders: the only emails left in my main inbox are those that need to be actioned by me; everything else gets filed, and my paper task list is numbered in priority order. I sound like a maniac, but working like this gives me clear visibility of what needs to be done by when, and what is most important or urgent.
What sort of daily responsibilities does an associate have in litigation? How does it differ from a trainee role?
I run the majority of my own files as an associate in real estate litigation. This means that I am responsible for the legal and strategic advice that I give clients, in addition to my own financial performance for the business.
I am responsible for the professional development of more junior colleagues when they work on my files, in particular, our team’s trainee and newly qualified solicitors. I manage my team’s learning and development budget, to make sure everyone has access to the training and courses they want. This is in addition to managing my team’s relationship with DWF’s Legal Support Centre (LSC).
My role and responsibilities now differ hugely from my time as a trainee almost three years ago. As a trainee, you assist fee earners with particular tasks or matters but tend not to be individually responsible for a large caseload.
Can you give us an idea of the sort of projects you manage from day to day?
Dispute work is very like project management. Property-related litigation can involve an asset manager, building surveyor, valuation surveyor, experts, landlords, tenants, etc. All parties need to be carefully aligned on tactics and timescales and need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of a case, and the proposed strategy. From a legal perspective, this needs to be managed tightly and efficiently to achieve the best result for clients.
One recent internal project involved process mapping litigation instructions with DWF’s business intelligence team for well-known retail, hospitality and telecoms clients. Process-driven instructions are now resourced through DWF’s internal LSC (a team of specialist paralegals) which improves service delivery for those clients and keeps costs down.
In addition to this, I manage the delivery of internal and external training to our national real estate litigation team, and have created and delivered training myself at networking event such as DWF’s Asset Management Seminar Series, and at client-specific CPD events. There is so much variety, and lots to get involved in over and above the day job.
What sort of clients do you generally deal with on a day-to-day basis?
The clients for whom I do most work operate in the retail, food and hospitality sectors, as well as the technology sector, although I advise clients of all types, including investor landlords, retailers, telecoms operators, hotels, healthcare providers and a well-known chain of pubs.
For instance, I advise on all aspects of commercial property for two well-known telecoms operators across their UK-wide portfolios of masts sites and represent one of the largest coffee shop retailers together with a big hotel chain on all types of asset management and property related issues. I have always loved property, and every day there is something interesting and challenging on my desk!
Interview with Sarah Pearson, Commercial Litigation Trainee at RPC
In just a few words, could you explain the sort of work you do in litigation?
We assist clients in resolving complex disputes, considering their commercial and economic needs, with recourse to litigation where necessary.
I am sat within the Banking Litigation sub-department, so there’s a lot to learn about the banking and financial industries as well as litigation itself.
My role as a trainee is varied. A typical day can involve assisting with the disclosure process, drafting witness statements and preparing exhibits, and preparing know-how bulletins for distribution among the wider department.
Why did you choose this seat?
I was keen to gain hands-on experience in big-ticket litigation and I knew trainees in the department were given a lot of responsibility very early on in the seat.
The Commercial Disputes team is one of the most rapidly growing departments in the firm, with fast-paced and interesting work.
RPC has taken the stance that it will generally not act for investment banks and other financial institutions, meaning it is one of the few firms of its size able to act against the banks.
Accordingly, I knew that the seat would present an opportunity to work on high profile, precedent-making cases.
I was aware that regardless of whether I decided to apply to qualify into the department upon qualification, the skills I gained would be readily transferable to other areas of law.
I wanted exposure to the challenges involved with international work crossing multiple jurisdictions. My involvement with a Russian case has definitely given me this experience, and trips to Russia to interview witnesses were an unexpected bonus!
I'm looking forward to building on my international experience in my next seat, when I will be joining the Hong Kong Commercial Disputes/Insurance team for six months.
How has this seat helped with your commercial awareness?
My seat in Commercial Disputes has really put current affairs in context. Since starting, I have started to see news stories in their wider socio-economic context; now when I read a news article I think of the legal repercussions for both our clients and the firm.
Any legal proceedings arising out such news stories will continue long after the headlines have ceased, so I now also find myself considering more historic commercial events in a different light.
What kind of projects have you been working on so far? Do you tend to take on short-term tasks or work on longer-term projects?
My seat has been fairly atypical because I have worked almost exclusively on one case since joining the department three and a half months ago. The case is one of the largest in the department and is not going to trial until January 2016.
However, as there are a myriad of issues within the case it is similar to working on a series of small cases.
In another case, for a household name, I assisted with an application to the court and asked to appear before the registrar at court to request that certain procedural steps be taken.
Although slightly nerve-wracking, it was a great experience and shows the responsibility given to RPC trainees.
Trainees in the team are expected to turn their hands to anything and everything, including all stages of litigation and alternative dispute resolution, whether the subject of the dispute is a work of art, derivatives or an automotive supply agreement.
Does your work put you in direct contact with clients?
Definitely – I have been pleasantly surprised how much so!
After working on the case for around one month I attended witness interviews in Russia, assisting with numerous documents and taking notes of the interviews (which are forming the basis of the witness statements that are currently being drafted).
I also have regular interaction with barristers (from junior barristers to QCs), and numerous experts. It's insightful to see the relationship between the different parties, especially in light of the different cultures due to the international nature of the work.
How does this seat compare with others you have completed?
My first seat, Real Estate, was extremely different from Commercial Disputes. The cases in Commercial Disputes tend to be higher value and longer running, which invariably means my role is less high profile than on the smaller cases in Real Estate.
Working mostly on one case means I am fully immersed in it and have a greater personal investment in it, but in Real Estate it was satisfying to see matters develop from the first instructions to their conclusion.